Buying a used Subaru Forester or Outback - which years are best?

I have been reading about problems with leaking head gaskets in older Subarus. What are the best years for Subarus all around? Is it different for Foresters vs. Outbacks?? Is it true that they fixed the head gasket problem in 2002?


As far as I’m concerned, they’re never really fixed. Give the newer models an opportunity to become older models and the problem may surface there too.

If you want a really reliable Subaru with a bullet-proof engine, look for an Outback with a 6-cylinder engine.

First of all, this engine uses a timing chain, so there is no timing belt to worry about.
The 6-cylinder engines have no known issues, and I have been driving one since December, 2001 with only one repair, namely replacement of the tensioner and the idler pulley for the serpentine belt. The bearings in those pulleys were going dry. Other than that minor repair–no issues whatsoever in 8+ years/100k+ miles.

I do not own a Subaru, and never have owned one. I used to think they were ok cars based on Subaru longevity of past models, pre 2000. Since reading on this forum I’ve moved to say don’t buy a used Subaru, period. For a car company with less than 10% market share Subaru is way over represented by posts on this forum. Bad head gaskets, transmissions that fail, one flat tire needs all 4 replaced or the all wheel drive components will fail.

Modern Subaru’s are not the solid long lived cars they used to be, don’t buy a used Subaru. Volvo is the other brand in the same boat, newer ones don’t hold up nearly as long as the old ones. Buy a Subaru and don’t be surprised with very high repair and upkeep cost. My opinion - don’t buy a used Subaru.

The two Subarus I had were trouble free, so couldn’t tell by me. In my very humble opinion after owning a couple and have friends own newer, they seem to be improving . Friend with 6 cyl only has 120K but trouble free miles. All have been trouble free when bought new. I agree that they are over represented, maybe because there’s a lot of northern climate people here ? But I know of few other cars that have as loyal a following than Subarus in NE area; regardless of “head gasket” problems.

But. having said all that…“Uncle Turbo” I agree…though I wouldn’t hesitate to buy new, I wouldn’t buy used

Like dagosa, I have bought 2 new Subarus ('97 and '02), and they have been the most reliable cars that I ever owned. Previously, I owned a Dodge Charger, a Volvo 240, a VW Karmann Ghia, a Chevy Citation, a Ford Taurus, and a Honda Accord, and all were purchased as new cars, with the exception of the Karmann Ghia. The '97 Subaru was more reliable than any of my previous cars, and that is why I did not hesitate to buy the '02 model.

In the 12 years/ 160k+ miles that I (and later, my brother) owned the '97 Outback, it needed to have the alternator replaced (at ~95k), the head gaskets replaced (at ~120k), and a lower control arm replaced (at 150k). And that was it. No other repairs in 12 yrs/160k+ miles.

My current Outback (the '02 6-cylinder model) is now at 100k+ miles with the only repair having been replacement of the tensioner and idler pulley for the serpentine belt as a result of dry bearings. That is it, in terms of repairs over 8 years.

If my Honda had been as reliable as my first Subaru, I would have bought another Honda.

That being said, I would probably not buy a used Subaru, but then again, I have not bought a used car of any make since the late '70s, nor do I intend to buy any used cars of any make.

2005-present Subaru’s are devoid of head gasket issues and quite reliable.

2003/2004 it was a hit or miss, except turbo engines no head gasket issues. 1996-2002 its more prevalent.

The 2005 Legacy/Outback is the start of “nice” Subaru’s IMHO with Audish interior. I love my 2005 Legacy GT(turbo) wagon and it has been trouble free.

The April edition of C. R. just came out so you can look at it too.

Are stuck on Subaru or willing to look at alternatives??..Toyota or Honda have comparable vehicles…as for my opinion I would look for a RAV…a very reliable maintenance free vehicle…have 2 at the moment.

Try these links and click on 2006, 2005, and 2002 for the Forrester. The click on the reliability tab. The engines have problems until 2006; the explanations are given. The same seems to hold for the Outback (click on 2007 and 2004, then reliability tab).

Let me add to VCDdriver’s Subaru experience. My last, I kept for only 130K, original battery, brake pads that were at the 60% level, one new set each of summer and winter tires, clutch felt the same as new as did the entire suspension system. I had one oil leak around the cam seal replaced at timing belt change. A deer hit it and bounced along the entire side…that needed repair. (buck died)…gas and regular fluid/filter changes per manual, and that was it. I lived on a dirt road and banged up the floor boards from below a couple of times on rocks, covered scraped areas with grease, oiled rust proofing and continued beating on it. I’d still have it but, replaced it with a vehicle that could tow a “pontoony”.

SOOOO, even if it did have a head gasket problem which it did not, I would still be way ahead of most cars. That’s why I feel the head casket problem is relative compared to the rest of the car’s reliability and for me, only comes into play when buying used. My only complaints were the seats and the poor overhang and approach angle which scraped too much for me on my “semi off road” road. 4Runner is a definite improvement in that area, but we still miss the Subaru and I wouldn’t hesitate buying another new.

This discussion is fascinating to me because I am the 2nd owner of a 1996 Legacy Outback wagon that I bought 3 years ago from my brother in law, for 1K. We also own a '98 Impreza Sport. We need to sell one off and get a newer car. One reason for my fascination is that my mechanic really loves our cars because they have the coveted 2.2 litre engines that Subaru stopped making. These engines apparently go forever as long as you change the oil every 5K miles. They leak a little when they get old but so what? I put in a quart between oil changes.

I need to replace one of these gems because rust is doing them in. They both have more than 200K on them. Both were bought used. Original transmissions, one new and one replaced clutch, both have original engines. We love them. Fantastic in snow and ok on ice with studded snow tires- makes all the difference on our dirt roads. We live in a hilltown in western Mass. Around here Subarus are the car of choice. Go to any parking lot and there is about a 5 to 1 ratio of Subies to any other car in the lot. I am thinking of getting a 2006 Forester with a new engine, clutch and brakes for $8,000. We can’t afford to pay more or I’d get the 2011 Outback.

Thanks for the discussion. I might be a year late, but it was really fun to find!

Hi my son is looking to buy a subaru forester Spec ltd edition 1999 model. Just wondering if someone can give me a price guide for a recon engine for these vehicles + any tips for identifying faults or any other useful info etc as we are going to have a look at the car later today

I had a 1996 Outback wagon with the 2.5 liter 4 cyl engine that is reportedly prone to head gasket issues. It was my second Subaru - my first was an '86 Subaru GL wagon with 4WD. I sold it to buy the Outback so I could get a car with the safety features that were not available with my '86. I just bought my third Subaru four weeks ago - the Legacy sedan - again, wanted the newer safety features. I really like these cars. I did not have the head gasket problem, but I was vigilant about all of the maintenance required. Yes, you have to replace all four tires if you get a flat, but that’s only if you can’t repair the flat.

OP asked which is better - the Outback or the Forester - I’d say drive them and determine which one you like better. I personally don’t like to buy used car because I have trust issues - I don’t trust other people to have taken care of their cars the way I would have taken care of mine…I’m willing to pay for my trust issues and so I buy new.

You can find a lot of good information on the Subaru forums - there is one for the Outback (personal experience I like it) and probably one for the Forester (haven’t been there) with lots of info on maintenance-related issues and the other kinds of things you might want to know.